The service goes something like this: Jane watches TV with her laptop nearby. When she clicks over to a particular program her laptop "hears" a snippet of the audio, matches it to its database of audio samples, and identifies it as a particular episode -- say "The Office" installment in which Jim and Pam kiss.
From there, it creates an ad-hoc social community of other viewers watching the same thing, so Jane can discuss the broadcast on message boards and view complementary content -- a gossip column about the characters' real-life antics or photos of the cast at the Emmys. When a commercial for Steve Carrell's latest film interrupts the show, the computer picks up the audio and serves an ad listing the nearest theater and showtimes.
The concept of interactive TV in a two-screen environment -- meaning with the TV and either a computer or web-enabled portable device -- "isn't a complicated concept," said Jen Soch, VP-associate director of advanced TV at MediaVest. In fact, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 17% of Americans were online when they last watched TV. What Ms. Soch likes about the Google proposal is that "it marries a lot of things we have in the marketplace today -- bookmarking, geo-targeting, demographic targeting and behavior targeting -- and puts it all in one place."
Michele Covell and Shumeet Baluja, the pair of Google researchers who wrote the paper, describe the system as mass personalization -- "integrating the relaxing and effortless experience of mass-media content with the interactive and personalized potential of the web."
Ambient audio technology
Their system doesn't rely on connecting the PC to the TV through a cord or wireless connection, but instead uses an ambient audio "listening" technology using the microphone commonly installed on new computers. The system matches snippets of TV audio to a central database of sounds to identify a particular episode of a program and then serves contextually relevant ads via a bidding process, not unlike what Google does in the search space.
So someone watching the Masters could chat with fellow viewers about Tiger's brilliant tee shot on the 16th -- and see an ad for the new Calloway driver. Or those tuned to Jerry Springer could read the latest news stories about the Cincinnati politician -- and receive a pitch for the latest "Girls Gone Wild" video.
The project, Google has said, is still in the research-and-development stage and not part of any specific product plan. But when Google talks, people listen. Tracy Swedlow, CEO and editor in chief of Interactive Today and iTVT.com, predicts the Google name will drive development.
"Google's very proactive and the potential for interactive TV is so massive," said Ms. Swedlow. The broadcasters, she said, have been "aggressively deploying video to the PC and Google knows that and knows they can potentially bypass other operators by providing a PC-based iTV service."